Letter from America: That Green Light, Flickering
By David Fedo
April 15, 2013. This was Patriots' Day in Boston, a city holiday commemorating the launch in 1776 of the American Revolution against Britain, which is now topped off by the running of the historic Boston Marathon. The race this year was Boston's 117th, bringing together thousands of runners from all over the world. Up to half a million spectators lined the 26-mile course, east from the bucolic suburb of Hopkinton to the finish line on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.
As it turned out, I was in Lebanon of all places, when the young Russian immigrants – the now-infamous Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan, 26, and Dzhokhar, 19 – casually planted their loaded backpacks on the street, in the midst of the cheering crowd in Copley Square. Both explosives, encased in pressure cookers and containing ball bearings and nails, wreaked havoc seconds later, shattering the afternoon with scenes of horror and blood. Three spectators – an 8-year-old boy, a young Chinese woman in graduate school at nearby Boston University, and a 29-year-old woman from the Boston suburb of Medford, my hometown – were killed instantly. More than 280 people, including both children and adults, were injured, many seriously enough to have lost limbs. Only swift and heroic action from the first responders – police, medical personnel and citizens – saved more lives.
I first heard the shocking news on CNN International in my Beirut hotel, after completing my day's work on an accreditation assignment at a local Lebanese university. What irony, I thought, to be in a country ravaged for decades by terrorism and war, to hear the terrible news about Boston, normally a reasonably safe city. Nearly every family in Lebanon has been touched by violent death and dislocation, but here were many Lebanese people conveying their outrage to me and my American colleagues about the savagery in Boston. Janet Napolitano, President Obama's Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, called the bombings "this unconscionable act of terror", and it was that and more. This wasn't 9/11, but it was devastating nonetheless.
The rest of the week saw all of Boston's and the United States' police and security personnel and FBI apparatus mobilised to identify and find the perpetrators of the bombings. And, as the world now knows, the two were discovered later that week, thanks to video identifications, in the nearby working suburb of Watertown, Massachusetts, after they had murdered a police officer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT is located in the adjacent town of Cambridge). After a car chase, Tamerlan was hunted down and fatally shot numerous times, while his brother, Dzhokhar, was captured hours later in a boat that had been stored in the backyard for the winter by a homeowner in Watertown. He too had been wounded by gunfire but survived, and has since been in federal custody.
Since the bombing, the overriding focus of the media in the US has been: Why did these young brothers do this despicable thing?
It wasn't long before a preliminary answer to this question came dribbling in, piece by piece, from the wide team of investigators: The Tsarnaev brothers were immigrants from Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet Republic, and Tamerlan seems to have had links to radical Islamists who had somehow turned him against the West in general and the US in particular. (According to an article by Michael Green in The Washington Post, Tamerlan's uncle said that he was "brainwashed".) Officials surmise that Dzhokhar, a student at the University of Massachusetts on the Dartmouth campus, simply went along with his older brother in carrying out the bombings. The full story of the transformation of Tamerlan Tsarnaev from husband and father, living anonymously in Cambridge, to terrorist will likely be detailed as the prosecution against Dzhokhar is mounted by the authorities.
Ever since 9/11, Americans have worried about terrorists, either foreign or home-grown. "Tied in knots by radical Islam," Green's article is headlined. In the minds of many Americans, the failed terrorist attacks by the so-called "underwear bomber" on a commercial US airplane and the Times Square car bombing remain fresh, and although most citizens are not anti-Islam, there are those who look at Muslims with growing suspicion. And not just in the US, either. After the brutal butchering in late May by two self-proclaimed Islamists of a British soldier on the streets of London, British newspapers reported increasing tension between Muslims and others. "When young men born and bred in this country are radicalised and turned into killers, we have to ask some tough questions about what is happening in our country," said David Cameron, the English Prime Minister, in a terse June statement.
What is to be done? For the US (and other Western countries), this is a perplexing and difficult question. Some in America say there is a need for a greater and more comprehensive security network among the police and governmental agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but there is little evidence that more and tighter "security", as we know it in the US, can prohibit such acts of violence without tearing apart the fabric of individual freedom. Communication between the various police and agencies, sometimes erratic, can surely be improved, but tracking down every potential threat, even with optimal technology, is a very daunting challenge. As the US has discovered once again in the interminable war in Afghanistan, if disaffected people want to do harm, and are willing to put their own lives or freedom at risk, there is sometimes little that can be done to stop them.
Many would assert that education is a better answer. Education that teaches all humanity respect for the differences in others, whether those differences be ethnic, religious, country-specific or any of a number of others, is crucial. Not easy to accomplish, of course, in such a diverse and turbulent world, but I would agree that it is necessary to keep trying. The world desperately – somehow – needs to change.
In the putative pantheon of the great American novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby (1925), stands secure with four others: Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1889), Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926) and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929). (Of course, excluding the works of other American "greats" – among them, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, John Updike and more recently David Foster Wallace – may be absurd, but compiling a list requires hard choices.)
Strangely, all five of the books listed above have endured very mixed adaptations as films. Perhaps the worst of all was John Huston's ill-advised Moby Dick, released in 1956 and starring Gregory Peck as the maniacal Captain Ahab. Huckleberry Finn was made into a movie at least four times, neither of which quite captured the humour and moral essence of the novel, and Tyrone Power's and Ava Gardner's performances in The Sun Also Rises (1957) were unhelpful. The 1959 movie adaptation of Faulkner's sprawling novel, The Sound and the Fury, with Yul Brynner, was awful.
The current film adaptation of The Great Gatsby (2013), directed by the Australian, Baz Luhrmann, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Gatsby, was preceded by four earlier screen versions (one a 1926 silent screening), a John Harbison opera which was premiered by the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1999, a stage production by the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota (Fitzgerald's home state) in 2006 and a London musical produced in 2012. In addition, the New York-based theatre company, the Elevator Repair Service, performed a staged read-out of the entire novel several years ago in a production that toured in a number of countries, including Singapore (this latter and unusual staging at the Esplanade was magnificent).
Of all the film adaptations prior to the Luhrmann's, I count the 1974 version as the best of the lot, with the performances of Robert Redford (as the adventurous Midwesterner-turned-shady New York financier, Jay Gatsby), Mia Farrow (as Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby's passionate love interest) and Sam Waterston (as the narrator Nick Carraway) at least adequate. However, many critics would disagree with this judgment, and the 1970s movie has faded into history; one rarely sees it on late-night TV.
I first read The Great Gatsby as a freshman at my university. At that time, years after Fitzgerald's death from alcoholism in 1940 at the age of 44, the novel was making a comeback. It is now routinely taught in high schools across the country and currently ranked among the very best works of fiction ever written by an American. As I discovered in my first reading, this ranking is based both on Fitzgerald's sublime prose – no one until his fellow American, John Updike, could match his gift of crafting a lyrical and evocative sentence and paragraph – and on his deconstruction of the American Dream, as embodied in the failed, romantic idealism of Gatsby himself.
I loved the book as a student and have taught it frequently in colleges since. And in the past 20 or 30 years, Gatsby has come to be admired not just in the US but by readers worldwide. In the Iranian-born Azar Nafisi's moving memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Gatsby, along with Lolita and works by Jane Austen and James, is a central point of discussion with her students. Fitzgerald, writes Nafisi, "wanted [his novel] to transcend its own time and place," and in recent decades it surely has.
Now on to the new film, which has received decidedly mixed reviews. My wife Susan and I saw the 3-D version, and we both liked it – with reservations. The famous Gatsby parties on Long Island, as depicted by Luhrmann, are clearly over the top – way too much riot, razzle-dazzle and noise. For some reason, Luhrmann eliminates the appearance of Gatsby's father at the sad funeral of his son; this scene in the novel is poignant and revealing, and its absence was missed. Most importantly, Luhrmann decides to present the film via intermittent flashbacks of Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), holed up in a sanitarium, where he is presumably drying out and allegedly writing a book about his former neighbour (and now murdered neighbour) Jay Gatsby. It's a gratuitous addition and totally unnecessary. Better let Nick simply be Fitzgerald's character and, after it is all over, have him return to the Midwest, as the real author wrote, and start a chastened but new life!
Other things go better. The reignited passion between Gatsby (DiCaprio), the man who reinvented himself, and Daisy (Carey Mulligan), who has always owned his heart, is deeply felt, and the first meeting between the two, arranged by Nick after they have been apart for years – Daisy has married the menacing philanderer Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) by default – is beautifully directed and acted. So is the failure of Daisy to live up to Gatsby's dreams; in an emotional and volatile scene at the Plaza Hotel, Gatsby is crushed by her refusal to leave Tom and run away with him. (Daisy can't say, as Gatsby demanded, that "I have never loved Tom.") It is the most critical moment in the film, and Daisy's later and final betrayal seems inevitable. Gatsby's dreams have been mortally stricken, and his murder which follows soon after seems inevitable too.
All of the principal actors, especially DiCaprio, Mulligan and Maguire, are fine. I was especially impressed by DiCaprio, who I have always felt was overmatched by his roles. Here, he becomes a genuine Jay Gatsby, with all of his complications, as the movie rolls along. It's a worthy performance.
By the way, if it's an accessible option, the 3-D version of The Great Gatsby is worth choosing. It's gaudy and sometimes untrustworthy, but I ended up being impressed as the images seemed to fly out of the wide screen straight into the theatre. That famous flickering green light at the end of Daisy's dock on Long Island has never looked so alluring, or so destructive.
– D.F., June 2013QLRS Vol. 12 No. 3 Jul 2013